Abstract Expressionism developed in New York in the 1940s and 1950s among artists who focused on visualizing the subconscious. The pioneering painters matured as artists at a time when America was suffering economically after World War II.
Abstract Expressionists sought to champion the American spirit and freedom by creating art that was bold, fearless, and full of emotion. From paint-splattered canvases to giant fields of color, the artists of the movement rendered their works using their own experimental techniques. However, they all had one thing in common: a dedication to self-expression.
Read on to discover six famous artists who were part of the groundbreaking Abstract Expressionist movement.
Here are six famous artists who helped define the Abstract Expressionist movement.
Although he’s not as well-known as some of his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries, American painter Clyfford Still is believed to be the first to create abstract work devoid of obvious subject matter. During his mature period in the 1940s, he created his signature fields of color that express both vitality and mortality. He painted fleeting flashes of vibrant hues that interrupted and contrasted against huge expanses of color. “These are not paintings in the usual sense,” Still once said. “They are life and death merging in fearful union…they kindle a fire; through them I breathe again, hold a golden cord, find my own revelation.”
Still continued making art until his death in 1980. However, the majority of his paintings remained unseen until the city of Denver built a museum dedicated to the artist in 2011. Still’s work was vital in establishing Abstract Expressionism as a movement, and his unique style continues to influence artists today.
On August 8th, 1949, Life magazine published an article about artist Jackson Pollock with the headline, “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?”
When Pollock first came on to the scene with his famous “drip paintings” in the late 1940s, no one had seen anything like them before. He created his large-scale artworks by placing canvases on the ground before flinging paint at them with a stick or pouring pigment directly from the can. He energetically moved around the canvas while he worked, often leaving behind evidence of his chaotic environment on the canvas. In addition to multiple layers of paint, some works are scattered with objects from the artist’s studio, including nails, matches, and cigarette butts. His mesmerizing, colorful webs of paint capture life itself, as well as the artist’s own anxious mind. Pollock lived a reclusive life and suffered from alcoholism which ultimately led to his early death at age 44; in 1956, he died after driving drunk and crashing into a tree in New York.
Pollock’s legacy still lives on. His unique, passionate way of defining pictorial space continues to influence generations of artists who are dedicated to self-expression. “Today painters do not have to go to a subject matter outside of themselves,” Pollock once said. “Most modern painters work from a different source. They work from within.”
Working in the male-dominated art world, Lee Krasner’s career was often overshadowed by her role as supportive wife to Jackson Pollock. However, she was a brilliant artist in her own right and a key figure of the Abstract Expressionist movement. “I happened to be Mrs. Jackson Pollock and that’s a mouthful,” she said. “I was a woman, Jewish, a widow, a damn good painter, thank you, and a little too independent.”
Krasner’s formidable determination comes across in the bold canvases she painted. She worked instinctually and painted with “controlled chaos.” Her Little Image series of 31 paintings demonstrate the expressive power of small, intricate lines and gestures. She created the series by dripping paint directly onto the canvas to create richly textured surfaces with white, illustrative lines. In her later works, Krasner worked through her profound grief after Pollock’s death. Her large-scale, brilliantly colored canvases rendered in assertive brushstrokes pulsate with energy. They express a sense of elation and healing after emotional trauma.
Krasner’s innovative use of color and scale was finally recognized in her first retrospective exhibition in October 1983 at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts in Texas. Unfortunately, Krasner died in June 1984 from internal bleeding due to diverticulitis and was never able to see her retrospective have its final show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Willem de Kooning
Dutch-American painter Willem de Kooning is celebrated for his dynamic, gestural style. He played an integral role in the Abstract Expressionist movement. But unlike other artists of the style, De Kooning never fully abandoned depicting the human form. He bounced between abstract and figurative art throughout his career, developing his own signature style of painting that fused Cubism, Surrealism, and Expressionism. De Kooning is perhaps most famous for his series of Women paintings—a then-controversial body of work that represents a deconstructed image of the female form in vivid, expressive brushstrokes.
In 1987—late in his 60-year career—De Kooning was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. This didn’t hinder his artistic output, though. In fact, he was more prolific than ever and continued to paint until his health seriously declined. He once said. “I don’t live to paint. I paint to live.” The legendary artist passed in 1997 at age 92, leaving behind a huge body of work that still influences artists today.
American painter Mark Rothko experimented with several artistic styles before arriving at his signature color field paintings in the 1950s. His compositions of hazy-colored squares and rectangles on large canvases expressed pure emotion, evoking what he referred to as “the sublime.” His works engulf the viewer into an intense, sensory atmosphere. “I think of my pictures as dramas,” he was quoted saying. “The shapes in the pictures are the performers. They have been created from the need of a group of actors who are able to move dramatically without embarrassment and execute gestures without shame.”
Throughout his life, Rothko championed social revolutionary thought and the right to self-expression. He often felt that the art market was too critical and refused to bend to its expectations. He publicly responded to critics and even refused commissions, sales, and exhibitions. Towards the end of his life, Rothko’s mental health suffered. He died by suicide at age 66.
One of the most influential artists of the 20th century, Helen Frankenthaler invented the “soak-stain” technique. Inspired by Pollock’s pouring method, she spilled turpentine-thinned paint onto canvas, producing vibrant color washes that appeared to merge with the canvas. Like Rothko, Frankenthaler also contributed to the Color Field Painting movement and created huge canvases that celebrate the joys of pure color.
Frankenthaler was just 24 years old when she made her artistic breakthrough, and she continued experimenting with new techniques and materials throughout her career. Frankenthaler didn’t conform to art world ideals. She expressed herself through bold experimentation and innovation. “There are no rules,” she once said. “That is how art is born, how breakthroughs happen. Go against the rules or ignore the rules. That is what invention is about.”
Frankenthaler died in 2011 at her home in Darien, Connecticut.